Music of the Spheres: Aurora Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Kate Wicks (production design), William Reynolds (lighting design) 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 5th June 2019

  • Max Richter – Journey (CP1919)
  • Beethoven – Molto Adagio from String Quartet in E minor, Op.59 No.2 (Razumovsky)
  • Thomas Adès – Concerto for violin & chamber orchestra (Concentric Paths)
  • Nico Muhly – Material in E flat
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter)
  • David Bowie – Life On Mars

‘There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.’ – Pythagoras

You get your money’s worth from the Aurora Orchestra. A concept, linking music and the cosmos, the “music of the spheres”, (which preoccupied the big minds of Greek philosophers and those that seized upon their ideas in the Renaissance), a light show, animation, narration courtesy of Samuel West and this Orchestra’s trademark, memorised, largely standing, performance of a classical music classic, this time from the Classical period, in the form of Mozart’s Jupiter. All for a tenner.

The QEH was packed and for once the Tourist was one of the older patrons rather than one of the young’uns. Whoever is in charge of the AO’s marketing deserves a pay rise, though Gillian Moore, (who can always be seen at these gigs – good on her), and the rest of the music team at the SouthBank Centre also seem to have nailed the programming at the QEH and Purcell Room since the re-opening.

Now I enjoyed the show. Or at least all the various elements especially the lighting, (at times the floor was lit up like Heathrow on a busy Friday evening). However the concept, whilst long on design came up a little short on ideas. No matter. It was, at the end of the day, the music that mattered most. And, on that front, the AO and chums delivered.

I have bored you at length about the glory of the Jupiter elsewhere following relatively recent outings from the Philharmonia under Philippe Herreweghe and from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Both were on modern instruments, though HIP informed, and both were high on drama. The AO’s take was in a similar vein. High on energy and exuberance and high on happiness. You wouldn’t know Wolfgang was on his last legs, dragged down by family misery, from this interpretation. Nicholas Collon played a bit fast and loose in places with tempi, but deliberately; in the Andante cantabile to underline the mystery of the string harmonies and in the five way fugal Finale, to spotlight the initial theme based on a motif derived from plainchant “The Creator of Light”. See space/religious stuff in line with the evening’s theme.

However the main event for the Tourist was “Concentric Paths”, Thomas Ades’s Violin Concerto Op 24, which was premiered in 2005 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It comprises a slow central movement, Paths, sandwiched by two faster movements, Rings and Rounds. As usual with Ades the score is rhythmically complex, endlessly inventive, with a wide dynamic range, especially right at the top of the register, and combines cycles for violin and for the small scale orchestra, which complement and occasionally clash, but together create an atmosphere of constant. circular motion. Back to the theme see. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto coped with everything Mr Ades threw at him and the AO were sublime with notable contributions from the flute and piccolo of Jane Mitchell and Rebecca Larsen. Mr Kuusisto encored with one of the deceptively simple, but oh so effective, post minimalist pieces from Nico Muhly’s Drones and Violin.

The evening kicked off with a new commission from another post minimalist Max Richter, Journey (CP 1919). It consists of a series of repeated rising lines, Part-like, which pulsate at different speeds. It doesn’t really resolve, just keeps going up and it is intended to be played in darkness. The relationship between the lines is intended to reflect the way that ancient astronomers mapped the orbits of the visible planets and the properties that their modern successors have identified in pulsars. Pleasant enough but since there is no real development a few minutes was probably enough. Mr Richter studied with the genius Luciano Berio and, in his solo albums to date, he has collaborated with the estimable likes of Tilda Swinton, Robert Wyatt and Wayne McGregor, and has plundered the likes of John Cage, Antonio Vivaldi, Gustav Mahler, phone ringtones and various heavy duty poets in his work. The boy plainly likes a concept and a bit of political commentary but doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And he has no qualms about film and TV composition. His score was used for Nosedive, still one of the Tourist’s favourite Black Mirror episodes.

A little bit of a music lesson from big Sam to introduce the Molto Adagio from the No 2 Razumovsky courtesy of a scratch string quarter drawn from the AO. It is, as the programme says, “a work of radiant and mysterious beauty”. Not best served by the context. Extracting it from the complete work and setting it in this busy evening didn’t do it any favours. It’s Beethoven so cannot be criticised but I’ve heard it played better.

Now if I tell you that the encore was a version of Life on Mars, initially from Sam Swallow on piano, before the AO gradually joined with an orchestral accompaniment, with a giant glitter ball, you will get some idea of just how hard the team worked to press those cross-over buttons. It should not have worked but it did. Mr Swallow is a go-to fella when it comes to orchestral arrangements of pop and rock with an eclectic client list. The most important of which is Echo and the Bunnymen, who, as I am sure you already know, are the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time.

Nice ending to a cracking evening. Can’t say I care for the next leg of the AO’s outreach programme, some Berlioz, but next year they are back here with Pierre-Laurent Aimard for an evening of Beethoven. Tempting. Unfortunately in all the Beethoven 250 year brouhaha of next year they have been trumped by no less than Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique who will be rattling through their version of the Choral. Which might just be the standout gig of the year.

Stockhausen chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound design)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Zyklus for percussion
  • Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape) 

I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.

So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.

So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.

Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.

Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.

The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.

The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.

With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.

Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.

OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.

Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know. 

Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Barbican review *****

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (conductor), Peter Sellars (director) 

Barbican Hall, 23rd May 2019

Much taken with our last exposure to Peter Sellars distinctive way with dramatising the choral after the OAE St John Passion at the Festival Hall last month, BUD and I set off, fuelled as usual by an excellent carb repast from Bad Egg, to hear and see this version of Lasso’s masterpiece on the Barbican stage.

Now this was an altogether different experience from the Bach. (unfortunately I missed Mr Sellars take on Stravinsky with the Philharmonia and Salonen). Orlande de Lassus (or Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre or Roland de Lattre, take your pick), was a big noise in late Renaissance polyphony, alongside Palestrina and Victoria, who left his native Flanders at the tender age of twelve to ply his singing and composition trade in Mantua, Sicily, Milan, Naples, Rome, then to France and England, back to Antwerp, on to Munich and the Bavarian Court, where he remained until his death in 1594, albeit with plenty more business trips to Italy. Freedom of movement see, at a time when one bit of Europe was economically and culturally much like another. It works to everyone’s advantage despite what the swivel-eyed Brexit nutters tell you.

In total Lasso wrote over 2,000 vocal works including 60 (mostly parody) masses, passions, psalm settings, 530 motets, 175 Italian madrigals, 150 French chansons and 90 German lieder. No instrumental music remains; though it seems unlikely that a composer this busy and this much in demand would not have turned his hand to non-vocal works. He was just as much at home in bawdy, secular comedy as he was in strictly orthodox liturgy and certainly pushed the limits of polyphony with exotic chromaticism and highly wrought word painting. There he is above. Makes me wonder if it is time for a revival of the gentleman’s ruff to better show off our beards.

His most famous work is this, the work on show at this performance, a penitential cycle of 20 “spiritual madrigals” and a concluding Latin motet, the Lagrime di San Pietro, (The Tears of St Peter), his final work before he died in 1594. It is scored for 7 voices and is divided equally into three sections, (reflecting St Peter’s claim to fame, the thrice-fold denial of Christ, the holy trinity, the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and no doubt much other Christian numerological hokum). In this performance the LA Master Chorale was comprised of 21 voices, 6 “canto” for which read soprano, 6 alto, 6 tenor and 3 bass. The settings use 7 of the 8 “church modes”, the system of pitch organisation on which chant was built, as well as for the final motet the tonus perigrinus, outside of the system to symbolise imperfection, and come from the poems of Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). It is through composed with no repetition and Lasso uses all of the skills he had developed in his previous works to create the maximum of emotional, (as well as all this symbolic), impact.

You don’t need to know anything about the arcane history of the secular madrigal, nor Renaissance polyphony more generally, nor all this structural mumbo-jumbo, to be moved by the piece. And it is pretty easy to see why Lasso alighted on these texts. And why the LA Master Chorale, (widely recognised, not least in their own blurb, though I have no reason to doubt it after this performance, as the US’s premier vocal ensemble), under conductor Grant Gershon, should have worked so hard to perfect the performance. Nor why Peter Sellars should have alighted on this for his first stage at directing a non-instrumental piece.

It is, thanks to Tansillo’s faintly (actually not so faintly) melodramatic Italian poetry and Lasso’s extraordinary invention, an inherently dramatic piece, even if it isn’t strictly chronological. Bows, arrows, swords, spears, stabs, wounds, tears, pain, sorrow, shame. You get the picture and that’s just the first couple of madrigals. There’s a couple of lighter moments but it’s mostly the usual Christian S&M guilt trip. So much suffering. Mind you I suppose Lasso was staring death in the face so I can see why he didn’t go with “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”.

Mr Sellars wheels out his usual ritual tropes, arm waving and hand gestures which tend towards the literal, lying on the floor, the whole ensemble assembling tableau style into an alarmed or alarming crowd, various combinations of writhing twos and threes. Remove the music and you could be watching a physical theatre acting class or maybe attending an anger management retreat. Costumes from Daniella Domingue Sumi are gym casual monochrome. The lighting design of Jim F Ingalls is similarly unsubtle. There is a faint whiff of 1970s California.

But you know what, it all works. I can see why some of the pukka reviewers were a bit sniffy about the whole affair but for BUD and I, who like a bit of visual stimulus, it hit the spot. Maybe not “visualising the polyphony” as Mr Sellars claims, but certainly telling a non-linear story. What was most extraordinary however was the sound of the LA Master Chorale. Remember they had to commit both score and choreography to memory. Despite all the on stage shuffling their tone throughout was so precise and so smooth, even in the most complex counterpoint, the shifting dissonances and the meanders through to resolutions. Far less austere than when performed by a European ensemble in penguin suits and evening dresses that’s for sure and better for it.

I was idly through some lists of the greatest choral works ever written which, variously, cover the whole gamut from the very earliest organum from Notre Dame to bang up to date contemporary. But surprisingly few of these lists mention this, Lasso’s finest hour, (well 80 minutes ). Which can’t be right.

Here’s my tuppence worth. Usual rules. No particular order. Well sort of chronological. Only one work per composer. Which is tough on old Bach in particular. All blokes. Sorry.

  • Perotin – Viderunt omnes 
  • Josquin des Prez – Missa Pange Lingua
  • John Taverner – Mass “The Western Wynde”
  • Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
  • Thomas Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah
  • Tomas de Luis Victoria – O magnum mysterium
  • Orland de Lassus – Lagrime di San Pietro
  • William Byrd – Mass for 5 Voices
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers of 1610
  • Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories
  • Giacomo Carissimi – Jepthe
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Gloria
  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – Stabat Mater
  • JS Bach – Mass in B minor
  • Joseph Haydn – The Creation
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
  • Benjamin Britten – War Requiem
  • Krzysztof Penderecki – St. Luke Passion
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Requiem
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen – Stimmung
  • Steve Reich – The Desert Music
  • Iannis Xenakis – Nekuia
  • Arvo Part – Passio

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Bach Orchestral Suites: OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Margaret Faultless (director/violin), Lisa Beznosiuk (flute)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th May 2019

Okey dokey pig in a pokey. There has been a grumpy tone in the last few posts that the workshy Tourist, courtesy of an imagined pep talk from Pauline, is resolved to shake off. So let’s park up the portable pulpit and climb back aboard the cheery charabanc of cultural criticism.

Mind you what can I tell you about the Four Orchestral Suites. I’ve come a fair way on my journey with Bach, who is the composer whose music I have begun to appreciate more than any other in recent years, (only a fascination with Ligeti has come close), but I still have a long way to go. If I am honest I will leave others to lead me through the vocal music and I doubt I will ever truly enjoy the sound of an organ of which he wrote profusely. There’s also still a lot of work to be done outside the obvious starting pieces in the works for keyboard but I reckon I have finally got my head around the chamber music and orchestral works. By which I mean I roughly know in what format and for what instruments he wrote. Not much I know but at least now I can properly start listening.

Any newbie to Bach is going to come across the Four Orchestral Suites pretty early on. And recognise plenty of the tunes. And what tunes. They are based on dance forms. Which makes then easy on the ear. But this being Bach there is so much more. The old boy termed them Ouvertures, referring to the form which preceded the dance movements in each of the suites. The French overture was all the rage in the Germany of Bach’s day. It was made. up of a stately majestic opening section in relatively slow dotted-note rhythm in duple meter, followed by a fast fugal section, then concluded with a short recapitulation of the opening music. Even if you know nothing about the Baroque, French, German, Italian or otherwise, but you have you seen any film which has toffs in preposterously big wigs behaving badly you will recognise the grooves. (Though not The Favourite. Like everything else about that film every piece on the soundtrack was chosen by someone who knows their stuff).

JS Bach wasn’t as prolific as some when it came to the suite, Telemann for example. But that would be because he was a glum pious bugger and was tied down by the religious day job. Or was it? The general consensus now is that he didn’t originally conceive these four works as a set and that they came together not when he worked in Cothen, (though he had the opportunity here), but after he landed his dream job, in 1723, as Music Director in Leipzig and Cantor at St Thomas’s School. This is when he was at his busiest but also when he sought to develop his music outside the confines of the church. From 1729 JSB became the director of the concert society, the Collegium Musicum Leipzig, which every Friday met at the same coffeehouse for a jam session. And it was for this group that he wrote the Orchestral Suites, albeit recycling some of his favourite riffs from previous work.

The Collegium though was all about exploring contemporary musical trends, which explains the form of the suites, but it was a serious, scholarly outfit, which is why JSB was able to serve up something much more than a clever pastiche of the genre. Which is why their immediate attractions, this is Bach at his most “galant”, then give way to something deeper and more satisfying.

The OAE, led on this evening, as is its raison d’être, by one of its own, co-leader Margaret Faultless, (whose inspirational contribution to HIP sort of matches her surname), kicked off with No 3 which probably dates from 1731. Here we get three oboes, a couple of trumpets and drums alongside strings and continuo, which explains the march-y, fanfare-y feel of the ouverture, which precedes that Air (on a G string). Now it always takes 10 minutes or so for my brain and ears to catch up with period ensembles and this was no different so it was only after the air that I was in the swing. As it happens the OAE’s violist Max Mandel stepped out after the Suite to ask if we liked the tempo that they had taken it at. I was one of the tiny minority who wanted it faster. Thus proving that, for me, and even in the slow movements, it can never be too fast or too loud in the Baroque and Classical. Well maybe not blast-beat chaotic but you get the drift.

Anyway I was warmed up by the two hop-along Gavottes, and the following rousing Bourree and swinging Gigue where the trumpets link back to the ouverture. By contrast Suite No 1 which followed is scored for two oboes and a bassoon, so with no trumpets and drums is a much less public and triumphant affair. The woodwind double the strings in the first theme but then operate as a solo trio weaving between the strings and continuo in the manner of a Handelian concerto grosso. The Courante which follows, in 3/2 metre, starts off bouncily enough but then turns into one of those shifting, swirling things of wonder, but it’s gone in a flash. The Gavotte, Menuet, Bourree and Passepied which follow are arranged in pairs with the second a variation on the first, sometimes just for wind sometimes just for strings, sometimes both, as in the second Gavotte where the strings imitate trumpet fanfares. This is JSB at his genius best. Something so simple becomes, er cliche alert, just sublime. The unrepeated dance, a Forlance, some sort of Slavic jig, is another little, pastoral gem.

No 2 came much later maybe 1739, (the numbers are not chronological), in fact it was probably JSB’s last orchestral work. It certainly sounds sterner, in the opening dotted march and then in the ensuing fugue, and when they come together we are in JSB’s world of pure musical invention where the old boy just never missteps in solving his mathematical and aesthetic puzzle. The dances include a Rondeau, another pair of Bourees, a Polonaise and finally a Menuet and Badinerie ,(which you will recognise – yep the Nokia ringtone favourite). These movements are where the OAE’s flautist Lisa Beznosiuk was able to strut her stuff, and strut she certainly did, (here’s the first page of the original flute part above). Yet for me the sweet, sweet Sarabande might just be the best movement of the suite. This is JSB in love. If you think the old boy’s music is too “intellectual”, which is b*llocks anyway, then listen to this and think again.

No 4, like Nos 1 and 2, similarly started off sans trumpets but, so uplifting is its opening Ouverture, that he quickly added 3 of them as well as drums. He also pinched the tune for his Christmas cantata in 1725. It is obviously Bach and obviously Baroque but there are times in this if I close my eyes when I could be listening to Mozart or early Beethoven. The dance movements, again with paired Bourees and Menuets sandwiching a Gavotte, highlight winds, trumpets and strings alternately, before a final Rejouissance which lives up to its name.

The OAE, for the most part standing, was on top form. The continuo of Stephen Devine (harpsichord), Luise Buchberger (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (bass) pushed and pulled throughout. I’d set these three along side my favourite ever rhythm sections any day of the week. * I would also call out the oboes of Katherine Spreckelsen and Alexandra Bellamy. A good night. An opinion shared by the entire MSBD sibling crowd whom it was my pleasure to accompany.

  • Since you are asking. Tony Thompson/Bernard Edwards, Benny Benjamin/James Jamerson, Al Jackson Jr/Donald Dunn, Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb, Sly & Robbie, Ashton and Carlton Barrett, Dennis Davies/George Murray, Brown Mark/Bobby Z, Les Pattinson/Pete de Freitas, Steve and Paul Hanley, Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham, Peter Hook/Stephen Morris, Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz, Graham Lewis/Robert Gotobed, Bill Ward/Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones/John Bonham, Neil Peart/Geddy Lee.

Herbert Blomstedt and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) 

Royal Festival Hall, 14th April 2019

  • Mozart – Symphony No 40 K550
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 “Eroica”

Bernard Haitink is 90. Herbert Blomstedt is closing in on his 92nd birthday. Unsurprisingly perhaps neither of them is particularly animated on the conductor’s podium. Mind you neither of them ever has been. Now you might ask yourself, apart from, by reputation, being a thoroughly nice bloke, (probably part and parcel of his fervent faith), at this age what is in it for him, and us, of Herbert Blomstedt continuing his life’s work when he should have retired years ago. To which I respond the world of classical music works to different rules.

Just to be clear. An orchestra of the calibre of the Philharmonia probably doesn’t need a conductor, of whatever vintage, to play this two warhorses effectively and efficiently. But it does need a conductor to lead and shape its musical vision. In its case the soon to be departed Esa-Pekka Salonen, its current Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. The reputation of young conductors is made on their skills in interpreting and shaping the music on the page, but their legacy is a function of what they do to the orchestras they are tasked to lead. What they play, why they play it, how they play it, where they play it, who they play it with, what they choose to set down for prosperity. All artistic decisions.

And then there is the commercial imperative. The PO helpfully shows what funds its 11 million quid annual running costs. (Just before any of you philistines get antsy that’s the price of one first team, high end Premiership footballer. I know football clubs are commercial concerns, often listed. But the cost of paying the asserts still makes then a sh*tty investment. Stick to consumer staples I say).

Around 25% comes from its Arts Council grant and tax relief – peanuts to you the taxpayer for the massive contribution to our cultural fabric. The result largely comes from ticket sales (15%), tours (25%), recordings/bookings (10%) and just over 20% from fundraising, all those nice philanthropic types. Now the head honcho conductor isn’t in the front line begging for money, (quite the reverse, E-PS donates a chunk of his earnings to the orchestra), but his, (shamefully still only very occasionally her), standing makes a big difference to the economics.

Of course the Chief Conductor/Artistic Director isn’t the only stick waver employed come show time. There are, depending on the size and status of the orchestra, a host of Guest Conductors, Conductor Laureates, Associate Artists and featured partner conductors who also shape and lead performances. One or two may play a part in the broader life of the orchestra, (the trainees for the big jobs if you will), but most pitch up for, more or less, just the rehearsal and the performance. But they will still have an ongoing relationship with the orchestra. This is important. Music making is a shared endeavour. If the orchestra doesn’t believe in the conductor trust me it shows.

Even so, unless things start to go seriously awry, the beat-keeping on the podium is more for us than them. Mind you in a big piece with a. big orchestra, the conductor is the thing that holds the dynamics together. And, he/she can still be invaluable, with his/her cues, in helping mesh soloist and orchestra together in a concerto. But largely, I would say, it’s all part of the orchestral theatre. So, obviously, it is what goes on beforehand that matters. There aren’t that many scores with nailed-down instructions on tempi, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, shaping ….. and all the other stuff that us non-musicians have no idea about. And even if there are it is not illegal to shake the score up a bit. So someone needs to set the interpretative rules.

And this can make a big difference. Just compare recorded performances of the same piece and you will get the picture. Composer and performer are generally the same in modern music genres. Not so, generally, in classical, art music. Who matters more is a function of musical history. Go delve.

(Now I know that there are plenty of performers and ensembles who work in a different way. No permanent conductor. Playing from memory. Just a leader. But I don’t they would do it for Mahler’s Eighth).

Which, finally, brings me to these performances of Mozart 40 and the Eroica. You and I have heard them billions of times. Old school, HIP, HIP informed, gut, steel, smaller/larger orchestration, fast/slow, Classically cool or fervently romantic. There are loads of ways to cut these delicious cookies. Herbert Blomstedt and the PO just played them. Perfectly. At a fair lick if I am honest which suits me, but never over-revving the PO’s engine, and with some well placed, not too much, vibrato, when it was reasonable to do so. But overall nothing showy. Just the right choices each and every time.

Mozart is not standard Blomstedt territory but he captured the tension in the opening Allegro, the clean textures of the Haydnesque slow movement, the bracing dance of the Menuet and Trio and nailed the forward-looking innovation of the finale. All the repeats present and correct. Maybe the minor key (this and No 25) is HB’s bag.

Beethoven definitely is his territory and this was marvellous. He plainly loves it and made the PO fall in love with this, the most important work of music in the Western canon IMHO, all over again. 50 strings. Count ’em. Violins antiphonally divided. But every texture, every phrase, even when it get a bit blowsy, in the coda to the epic opening movement or the heroic final variation in the Finale, was utterly transparent. He has clearly continued to learn from the new ways of approaching LvB’s music and grafted that on to the decades of dramatic interpretation he has lived through. No need to open the score. Back straight. Legs planted. Just fingers, elbows, shoulders to remind the players what they already knew. Some stand out double bass grooves and well hard thwack timpani. Natural trumpets. And, in the funeral march, plenty of aural elbow room for the woodwind to shine. The change that this piece of music ushered in was plainly heard but never at the expense of its still Classical grounding.

Best of all. He believes in Beethoven’s markings. Even if he, like most, can’t quite get there. I am not advocating blast beat fast a la Gardiner, (though I am salivating at the complete cycle with the ORR next year at the Barbican), but LvB knew what his was up to and if you don’t agree you can go back to your interminable Wagnerian dirges.

Even when taking the well deserved applause HB seemed more concerned with praising the audience than lapping up the audience appreciation. Mark of the man. With Abbado, Boulez, Harnoncourt, Masur and Davies sadly no longer with us this leaves Maestros Haitink and Blomstedt as the granddaddies. (I can’t vouch for Mr Muti). Both prize purity and don’t f*ck about with what is on the page. Haitink still gets my vote but he only seems to do Bruckner or Mahler now. So hearing what a legend does with stuff I love was a real privilege.

There aren’t that many recordings I would own conducted by HB, whether with the various Scandi outfits he has headed up, the Dresden Staatskapelle or the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (Under Barenboim and Chailly these two have climbed to the very top of the orchestral tree but guess who kicked off the journey). But I wouldn’t be without his Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Basically he single handedly showed what the rest of the world what Denmark’s favourite musical maverick (I know, it’s a small field) could do. Priceless.

The Magic Flute at the ENO review *****

The Magic Flute

English National Opera, 28th March 2019

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When opera works there is no other art form to touch. But when it doesn’t it can be mystifyingly dull. What’s more it can be the very same opera which is both of these things.

Take The Magic Flute. It is an undeniably daft opera. Its message is the triumph of the light and reason offered by the Enlightenment over the dark forces of Empress Maria Theresa’s absolutist Habsburg regime and the obscurantist Catholic Church. I understand that the Freemasons here are the good guys, even when they don’t appear to be, (though I gather the current mode de jour is to play down Mozart’s funny handshake connections), and that the Queen of the Night, even if she can hold a note (high F6 apparently), is not ideal mother-in-law material.

But even armed with sub-textual knowledge, insight into plot and familiarity with the score, (though that isn’t necessary though, this being Mozart, undeniably the greatest ever composer for dramatic voice), it can still it can still come across as upper class pantomime and take an age to get through. Unless of course it is directed by the genius that is Simon McBurney. There he is above in The Encounter. Mr McBurney OBE is the Artistic Director and a co-founder of Complicite. Complicite might just be the most important, and certainly the most innovative, theatre company in the UK. And therefore maybe the world. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have only seen a handful of their productions but when you see what they do you will know too. Which is what happened to BUD on the evening we went to see this Magic Flute. Mr McBurney has an eclectic list of film and TV, and directing, credits, so you are bound to have seen him somewhere, but it is his work with Complicite, extending far beyond direction and performance, given the vast array of associates involved in the company, that makes him special.

Now the Tourist, given his only rudimentary understanding of opera as an art form, and especially his inability to grasp the basics of musical constructions, find it tricky to opine on the subject. Moreover by rejecting pretty much all of C19 opera, (the bel canto of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the pompous melodrama of Verdi, the sentimental, pot-boiler manipulation of Puccini, the meandering bombast of Wagner – I’ve tried it all and I can’t be doing with it), and seeing it as drama with music, not music and tunes to which the drama is stitched on, I appreciate I am drastically narrowing the field. There is plenty to like musically from the Baroque but you need to get on with gods, monsters and Classical Greece plot wise, and some of then don’t half go on a bit, (I am looking at you Mr Handel). There aren’t actually that many C20 operas that have stood the test of time and get a regular airing. All this means then that the Tourist, especially since he isn’t going to drop £200 for a decent view at the Royal Opera House, or worse still some poncey gaff like Glyndebourne, on the off chance he might be converted, is condemned to see a lot of Mozart, Britten and contemporary opera. Which suits him but doesn’t really qualify him to write about it, even to himself. And he has never seen a Gluck opera, nor Fielio and suspects he might put up with any old nonsense story if Vivaldi’s music backed it up.

Which is why he has failed to document some of his more recent brushes with Mozart. But, with this Flute, once again with BUD as Sancho Panza to the Tourist’s Don Quixote, some clear patterns, worthy of comment, have emerged. Cases in point. We saw the Die Zauberflute at the Royal Opera House in October 2017. Nice perch. Stalls Circle to the side, nose to nose with the pit, though the rear of half of the stage was cut off. Sur-titles on a little screen on the ledge in front. So a strong showing musically, and in terms of the acting from the cast, but less impact from the set and from the libretto. Lesson one then. Having to look down at the translation doesn’t help. Which brings me to the wider, and contentious, claim. For me opera is better in English. Not because I can understand every word that is sung but because I might, particularly if the translation of the libretto captures the meaning, spirit and musicality of the original. As evidence I offer up Jeremy Sams genius offering for The Marriage of Figaro in the Fiona Shaw ENO production. You can berate me as much as you like but, if the singing, and sur-titles, make a connection, (in so far as that is possible when some soprano is going balls-out coloratura on what feels like the twentieth reprise of her showcase aria’s first verse), then the Tourist can start to find a way into the drama. Anathema to the purist but there it is. As for this ENO Flute, Simon Jeffrey’s pithy translation certainly did the trick.

Lesson two. Now I couldn’t tell you why but clearly some opera singers are better than others. Stronger, more powerful, more resonant, more accurate. a wider range, a better understanding of language, breath control, squillo, tessitura, rubato, vibrato, etc, etc. The ROH Flute definitely had the edge on the singing front, even with a “second string” cast when compared to this ENO Flute, (with the exception of Lucy Crowe’s Pamina). The ovation accorded to Greek soprano Christina Poulitsi after she nailed Der Holle Rache was something and well deserved. Goodness knows how excited the punters will have been after Sabine Devieilhe, the dastardly Queen for the other performances and the critic’s darling, squeaked her damndest. Yet, in terms of performance I preferred the ENO version because the singing, and for that matter the musical interpretation from the ENO Orchestra, fitted the drama more satisfyingly than the ROH production.

Which brings me to lesson number three, the most important of all. In opera the director really matters. That is, of course, also true in straight theatre but in opera, where there are so many interpretative decisions to be taken and where spectacle matters, the vision the director brings, can, in the Tourist’s limited experience, may a huge difference, particularly in drawing out the universal themes and creating a “look” that resonants with a modern audience in works that were written a few hundred years ago. Now there are some that are going to prefer their opera unsullied by the hand of the Regieoper. I certainly get that if the creative mind goes on to wild a bender the result can be a mess. On the other hand seeing something that emphasises the drama, the theatre of opera, and imposes some meaning, or at least insight, is more interesting to me than a straight, “period” interpretation, whatever that might be.

Not that David McVicar’s “classic” 2003 ROH production, revived for the sixth time by Thomas Guthrie, with design from John MacFarlane and lighting from Paule Constable, comes straight out unvarnished from 1791. But it does emphasise the “pantomime” and “set-piece” look, feel and structure of what I imagine to be Mozart’s, and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder’s, original Singspiel vision. Magic, fable, predictable comic turns from the boy Papageno, starry night skies, Masonic temples, swathes of primary colours, sharply delineated light and dark, some immense puppetry, a spiritual journey. All present and correct but it did jog on a bit and there wasn’t really a thread that held the whole together. The cast was sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the set and the dramaturgy a little stolid. The daft story, and the aforementioned clash of philosophies, were showcased but nothing really connected.

Now in contrast Mr McBurney’s ENO version was a revelation. In part because he utilises the whole arsenal of typical Complicite aural and visual tricks, video projection, here with on-stage digital blackboard, on-stage Foley artist, a tilting, floating stage, fluttering birds simulated through sheaves of paper, orchestra players incorporated into the action on stage and singers descending into the raised pit and auditorium, to create a spectacle that highlights the artifice and wit of the theatrical experience, but also in the “magical” plot and in Mozart’s spectacular score. It is entertaining for sure but when it needs to make a point, the book-shelf to symbolise Sarastro’s Temple for example, it does. And, as if to directly address one of the banes of the Tourist opera attending life, there is constant on stage movement. No member of the cast is parked. to sing or otherwise.

The three ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson) taking snaps of the unconscious Tamino (a properly hunky Rupert Charlesworth) on their phones, the three alarmingly old looking boy spirits (Guillermo Fernandez-Aguayo Martin, Richard Wolfson, and Nat Fukui), Julia Bauer’s Queen of the Night careering around in her wheelchair, the video snake, the “boardroom” table, the coup de theatre trials by fire and water with video backdrop covering the entire width of the stage, a genuine Prosperian “philosopher king” Sarastro, (bass Brindley Sheratt was compelling), and a genuinely strong and courageous Pamina (Lucy Crowe is both the best singer and actor I have ever seen on an opera stage, though appreciate experience is limited), a gentleman of the road Papageno, (Thomas Oliemans) and come to think of it Papagena (Rowan Pierce), with the ability to translate frankly p*ss poor comedy into real pathos, a greasy, lank-haired Monostatos (Daniel Norman) who is pure creep. And a magic flute which literally takes centre stage. Mr McBurney has thought about how it all fits together, about the story he wants to tell, and then worked on every detail to make us believe that this symbolic, numerological gibberish is really saying something to us.

It is as well that Mr McBurney’s creative collaborators were up to executing the vision. At this performance Chris Hopkins took the baton from young Ben Gernon. Sounded fine to me. I have no doubt that chief amongst all this invention was associate and movement director Josie Daxter who has worked with SMcB on his other opera A Dog’s Heart and A Rake’s Progress in Amsterdam. And there there was the set design of Michael Levine, the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the lighting design of Mike Gunning, (based on the original work of Jean Kalman), the video of Finn Ross, the sound of Gareth Fry and the aforementioned on stage artists Ben Thompson and Ruth Sullivan.

Now just in case you opera buffs were thinking the Tourist is some sort of lightweight with a toddler-esque attention span that delights in directors upending operatic tradition I offer up a recent visit to the Royal Opera House and Cost Fan Tutte. Overall this was a fine night out with the SO, BUD and KCK for company with much to enjoy. Admittedly in a cheap (for a reason) box which restricted the view but still. It was Mozart, a fine, if not perfectly matched, cast highlighted by Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso and Serena Gamberoni’s Despina alongside the menage a quatre of Paolo Fanale (Fernando), Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Salome Jicia (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella), and a barnstorming performance in the pianoforte continuo from conductor Stefano Montanari who amped up the tempi to good effect.

However Julia Burbach’s direction of this revival of German Regie Jan Philipp Gloger’s original production didn’t really work for me. I had seen the original at the cinema and was mystified by some of its conceits then. Same here live. I get the notion that it is daft to believe that our funny lovers, even when the lads are dressed up as “east” Europeans, wouldn’t recognise each other, but it is equally daft to presume that they are all deliberately playing along to rediscover love and something about themselves. So we enter Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers, after a performance of the opera has ended, the scenes are played out in a rehearsal of the opera itself, with stagehands milling about and putting up each of Ben Bauer’s inconsistent designs ahead of each scene, there is plenty of implied guff about defining and reclaiming identity and the sexist title is repurposed to include us all rather that just the “women who are like that” with a simple replacement of an “e” by an “i” – tutti you see. All is artifice, all is deceit, and that includes you audience.

I get the idea. The problem is the plot and libretto. There is no way round it. This story and the words da Ponte sets to Mozart’s glorious sounds to tell it are sexist claptrap. So the gap between what Herr Gloger wants us to understand is the message and what we hear (or more exactly, read in translation) just gets wider and wider. Nothing wrong with director’s manipulating and mining sacred texts to resonate with contemporary audiences and to repurpose the arguments and nothing wrong with exploring the dissonance between what was acceptable then and what is acceptable now but there has to be some internal logic and clarity in what we see and hear that doesn’t require a download of the programme notes in advance to understand.

And the performers have to be convinced by the director’s vision that no-one here is convinced by what they are doing or singing. I don’t think they were, with perhaps the exception of Serena Malfi. So neither was I. Better to recognise the reality of the first, misogynist, take on the opera, and then start to tease out the ironies that might exist in da Ponte’s texts and Mozart’s music. It might not entirely paper over the ugly stereotypes at the heart of the “comedy”, nor the fact that it does go on a bit, but there is plenty to work with in the right hands, as with Shakespeare’s more cloth-eared passages, and, failing this, there is always the music and the farce.

Right that’s the state of play in the Tourist’s head Mozart opera wise. Until the next time when he will likely entirely reverse his opinions.